Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Biggest WDW Guidebook Of Them All

The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World 2010, by Bob Sehlinger with Len Testa. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons, 2009, 850 pp.

As you folks who read this blog regularly know, I love to read a good guidebook about a Disney theme park. Not only can they be helpful in making the most of a visit to a park you're not familiar with, they serve as a snapshot of what a particular park was like at a certain time; if I ever need to settle a bet about whether or not an attraction was open or not in a certain year, I almost always turn to my collection of guidebooks. I figured it was about time that I turn my attention to one of the biggest (in terms of popularity and in terms of size) out there, so this time we'll be reviewing the grandaddy of all Walt Disney World guidebooks.

The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World has got to be one of the most comprehensive guides to planning and enjoying a Walt Disney World vacation. From providing resources and suggestions for planning a trip to central Florida to in-depth discussions of lodging, food and entertainment options, as well as a comprehensive guide to all of the Disney theme parks and a couple of the non-Disney parks, the Unofficial Guide just about has it all; if there's something you need to know about Walt Disney World that isn't in this book, I haven't found it yet. Unlike most guidebooks, the Unofficial Guide's advice isn't solely based on the knowledge of a well-traveled author (although Bob Sehlinger and Len Testa certainly have lots of experience traveling to WDW); the book also depends heavily on the opinions of its readers to provide judgements on attractions and restaurants and on computer algorithms to determine the best plans for touring the parks. Also unlike some guides, the Unofficial Guide is opinionated - not just about whether an attraction, hotel, or restaurant is good or bad, but also about some of Disney's policies and business decisions, but the opinions are based on a love of and respect for the product.

As you may have guessed by that lengthy synopsis (well, hey, it's a lengthy book!), I really enjoy reading and using the Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World. It's a great source of information on what's new and what's changed (for better or for worse) at the Disney theme parks, and it's a great read to boot. Bob and Len provide a lot of useful stuff in this book, whether it's your first trip or your 51st, and they provide it in a witty and opinionated style that prevents all the knowledge being provided to you from being overwhelming. Bob and Len aren't afraid to bite the gloved hand that feeds them, but you never get the impression that it's meant out of spite or solely to stir up controversy.

So who's not going to like this book? Well, first and foremost, if you're one of those people who prefers to see the (Walt Disney) World through Mouse-colored glasses, this probably isn't the book for you; Bob and Len aren't afraid to criticize Disney if it's warranted, but there'll always be people who think that Disney can do no wrong, and they won't be happy to be told otherwise.

I know some folks are going to be intimidated by the sheer size of this book. (An important note: Don't drop this book in the vicinity of your foot or any small children or pets - you'll probably do some damage.) The Unofficial Guide probably isn't the book to pick up in the airport newsstand while you're waiting for your flight to Orlando, because it's going to require you to invest a little of your time; it's better to invest a little of your time before you go than to invest a lot more time and money when you get there because you didn't pick up some important advice. (If the size of the book really is a problem, look for the Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World Mini-Mickey, which is a condensed version of the regular Unofficial Guide.)One other minor quibble I have with the guide: Does it have to have so much of the illustrations and text in blue? There's nothing wrong with blue, you understand, it just gets overwhelming after a while, particularly if you're crazy like me and read it from cover to cover. Aside from that, no worries.

The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World 2010 is a comprehensive, informative,and well-written guide to planning, enjoying, and saving time and money on a Walt Disney World vacation. The book will require a little more time to read and review because of its size, but it's time well-spent; readers who prefer their Disney guidebooks with a little less opinion or heft and a bit more pixie dust may want to consider another guidebook, such as the Birnbaum Walt Disney World or the PassPorter Walt Disney World guidebooks. The book can readily be found at most major chain and online bookstores, as well as independent bookstores with a good selection of travel books.

Oh, and one last thing: Happy holidays, everyone! Thanks for reading, and I promise lots more fun and interesting reviews in 2010.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

A Challenge From The Mouse

Disneyland Challenge, by Jim Fanning; Jody Revenson , senior editor. New York: Disney Editions/D23, 2009, 128 pp.

There are few things that I enjoy more than a book that tests my knowledge of the Disney theme parks. It's not that I think I know everything there is to know about the parks, you understand; I've learned a lot about the Disney parks over the years, but I realize that there's always going to be more for me to discover. But it's kinda fun to see how much I do know, and when I get a few (or more than a few) questions wrong, at least I know that I've picked up some more interesting bits of information about the parks. Apparently I'm not the only one who enjoys getting quizzed on how much I know about the Disney theme parks, because Disney recently released a new book that promises to "put (readers') Disneyland Resort knowledge to the test". For my latest review, I'm going to take up the Disneyland Challenge and see if the book lives up to the promises it makes on the cover.

Disneyland Challenge is one of several books about the Disney theme parks recently released by Disney under the D23 label; the book is intended to test readers' knowledge of and provide readers information about the lands and attractions of Disneyland, Disney's California Adventure, and the Downtown Disney district. The first thing you'll notice about the book is that it's been designed to be brought along with you as you visit and perhaps take a little punishment in the process; it has a multi-ring binder holding it together instead of traditional binding and the paper's thicker and glossier than the paper most guidebooks are made of. Disneyland Challenge is also formatted differently than most books about the parks; the book contains lots of images, and most of the text is in small multicolored boxes, with each box's color indicating a different category of information. To use the book, just flip through it until you find the page about the attraction or land you're visiting, and then start working on the challenges or start reading about some of the things you'll find there. To solve the challenges, look around and do your best to notice the little things all around you, because the answers to many of the challenges will often be in plain sight.

I have to give the folks who put Disneyland Challenge together points for really thinking outside the box - the format of this book's unlike any quiz book or guidebook about the Disney theme parks I've ever seen. I like the fact that this book encourages readers to bring the book along with them as they visit the theme parks and to pay attention to the little details that add to the overall experience - any book that encourages park guests to slow down a little and appreciate the full Disney experience is a good thing as far as I'm concerned. There's some interesting information in Disneyland Challenge; I think most Disneyland fans will learn at least a couple things they didn't know by reading this book, and more casual Disney fans might be encouraged by the discoveries they make while using this book to learn more about Disney history and to try and discover more Disney details.

Unfortunately, the unusual format of Disneyland Challenge is as much a drawback as it is something that sets the book apart. The book tries so hard to be visually exciting, with lots of images and comic book inspired title and text fonts, that the information being provided seems to get lost in the shuffle. Flipping through the book to find an attraction is an interesting idea, but the book should have still included an index and numbered pages for the benefit of people who prefer to find something the traditional way. This book's really intended more for casual fans of the parks or folks who have just started discovering the history and details of the Disneyland Resort. Readers who are more familiar with the Resort aren't going to find the challenges all that challenging, whether they're in the Park when they read this book or not. Lastly, I'm really surprised that a book put out by Disney about two of its theme parks is so out of date; there are quite a few pages and more than a few photos in this book that reference attractions that no longer exist or that have been significantly changed. I realize that the Disney theme parks are in a constant state of change and no book about the parks will be 100% accurate, but the format of the book makes the mistakes more obvious.

Disneyland Challenge is a different take on the Disney theme park trivia book; its unusual format and reliance on images and brief bits of information and trivia make it an interesting way to enhance the Disney experience for the casual visitor, but the easy questions will frustrate the seasoned Disney park fan looking to test and expand their knowledge of the California Disney parks. If you're a more devoted fan, I'd recommend Kevin Yee's Magic Quizdom for some challenging Disneyland trivia questions, or try Lou Mongello's Walt Disney World Trivia Book series if you want to test your knowledge of the Florida theme parks. Disneyland Challenge is currently being sold at the Disneyland Resort or through Disneyland DelivEARS, but it may also be available online through third-party booksellers at a substantial markup from the cover price.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

An Artful Duo

The Art of Disneyland and The Art of Walt Disney World, by Jeff Kurtti and Bruce Gordon. New York: Disney Editions, 2005; 131 pp. (Art of Disneyland)/2009; 139 pp. (Art of Walt Disney World).

Before we get started, I'd like to apologize to the folks who read this blog regularly for my extended absence. I wasn't planning to be away from here for so long, but some major speedbumps in my life got in the way. I'm not sure they're completely gone, but I enjoy bringing these reviews to you so much that I couldn't let this blog die. I hope you'll forgive me. Okay, so much for the mea culpas - on to the review...

Every theme park attraction begins as an idea. Long before the ideas become reality in the Disney theme parks, some very talented people use their skills as artists to give others a feel for what those ideas will look like when they reach fruition. It's safe to say that many of our favorite attractions - in some cases, our favorite theme parks - might have never become reality without the drawings and paintings these people created. Unfortunately, we seldom get to see these beautiful pieces of concept art created for the Disney parks, which is a shame; not only do we miss out on seeing some significant pieces of Disney history, we miss out on the chance to enjoy some beautiful art. The books we're going to look at today give us a chance to enjoy and appreciate some of this artwork.

The Art of Disneyland and The Art of Walt Disney World are two coffee table books that show us a few of the many pieces of concept art created by artists at Walt Disney Imagineering to inspire fellow Imagineers to create attractions or to inspire the public to visit those attractions. Some of the artists whose works are featured in these books - such as John Hench, Marc Davis, Mary Blair, and Sam McKim - will be very familiar to Disney theme park fans, as will some of the images, but there are many more drawings and paintings done by less famous names that are also featured.

You'll see art for world-famous attractions like Pirates of the Caribbean and The Haunted Mansion and lesser known-attractions such as the Snow White Grotto at Disneyland, as well as concept art for attractions that were never built; you'll also get a look at Disney artists' visions of lands in the theme parks from several different periods in the parks' history, as well as see art for attractions that have long since disappeared from Anaheim and Orlando.

The Art of Disneyland organizes the artwork by the lands the attractions were built in or were intended to be built in; The Art of Walt Disney World organizes the artwork by themes, such as nostalgia, adventure, and fantasy. Both books feature biographies of some of the artists whose art is featured in each book and a little bit of text providing some background on the lands or the categories by which the books are organized. Most of the artwork is printed sideways, allowing the art to be presented in a large enough size for the reader to fully appreciate it, but small enough for the art to fit onto a single page.

I enjoyed both of these books from the minute I opened the cover, and the last thing I wanted to do was to put either book down. The artwork is beautiful and is well reproduced, and there's a nice variety of artwork; unless you have friends who have taken you through the archives at Imagineering, I guarantee you that there will be art in each of these books that you've never seen before.

Jeff Kurtti and the late Bruce Gordon took a lot of care in choosing the art featured in these books, and it shows; in addition to including some of the drawings and paintings of the parks that are so iconic that you'd expect them to be in books like these, they included a nice selection of more obscure but equally beautiful work. For example, I'm a big fan of attraction posters, so I really enjoyed that The Art of Walt Disney World featured mini attraction posters created especially for the Main Street vehicles in the Magic Kingdom. Once you get used to holding the books on their sides, you learn to appreciate the decision of Jeff and Bruce to print the artwork sideways - in addition to enabling them to reproduce much of the art large enough to really take in the details, you avoid having to struggle to try and appreciate the art while a crease runs right through the middle of it.

Both The Art of Disneyland and The Art of Walt Disney World are amazing, but they're not perfect by any means. The biggest issue any Disney fan's going to have with these books is what you'll be paying for what you get; to put it bluntly, these books ain't cheap. The Art of Disneyland originally sold at the theme parks for $75.00, but is now available for a still pretty expensive suggested retail price of $49.95; The Art of Walt Disney World is available for $49.95 as well. That's a pretty steep price for books that are about 130 pages in length! As much as I'd love to buy multiple copies of these books and take them apart so I could frame and hang pages from them on my wall, I won't be doing it when these books cost that much. I wish both books had included some additional material, especially The Art of Walt Disney World; considering how much has been built at the World, I can't help but think that limiting the book to 130 or so pages meant that some really nice artwork was left out. (Well, I guess I can hope for a sequel to each of these books...)

The Art of Disneyland and The Art of Walt Disney World offer a fascinating glimpse into the archives of Walt Disney Imagineering, featuring some of the beautiful art created for the American Disney theme parks. While the books are a little thin and more than a little expensive, these books are a "must have" for any fan of the Disney parks. The Art of Disneyland is available through major retail booksellers like, as well as stores that carry a good selection of Disney literature, such as Compass Books at Disneyland's Downtown Disney district. (Please note that, aside from different art on the book jacket and some minor corrections, the current edition of The Art of Disneyland has the same content as the edition previously sold exclusively at the Disney theme parks.) The Art of Walt Disney World is currently available only at the Disney theme parks, although it can be purchased (at much higher prices than suggested retail) through the secondary market.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Bonjour, Mickey!

The Unofficial Guide to Disneyland Paris, 2nd Edition, by Bob Sehlinger. New York: Hungry Minds, Inc. (Wiley and Sons), 2001, 229 pp.

The birthday of The Happiest Place on Earth is almost here, so I think it's about time that I review another book about... Disneyland Paris. (Sorry, folks - when you engage in the "eeny meeny miney moe" method of pulling a book from the bookshelf, you never know what you're going to get.) Although I enjoy reading and doing reviews of just about any guidebook to the Disney theme parks, I especially enjoy finding and reading guidebooks about the overseas parks, because there just aren't that many books out there to help the armchair traveler/Disney fanatic to experience or plan for visiting those parks. Let's face it - if you want a book to plan for your trip to Disneyland or Walt Disney World, even the smallest bookshop will have something available for you to browse and buy. But if you'd like to visit one of the parks in Paris, Hong Kong, or Tokyo, lotsa luck. Today, we'll be looking at an older book that provides tips on visiting Disney's first European theme park that carries the name of a well-regarded series of guides to Disney theme parks and other vacation spots. But does this book live up to the Unofficial Guide name? We'll see...

The Unofficial Guide to Disneyland Paris was the second attempt by Bob Sehlinger, the author of The Unofficial Guide to Disneyland and The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World, to offer a guide to one of Disney's overseas parks (the first attempt was The Unofficial Guide to Euro Disneyland, published in 1993). The book provides helpful information on planning a trip to France to visit Mickey and his pals, including the best times of the year and the week to go, the various ways of getting to Disneyland Resort Paris, how to get to and from the resort to the City of Light, hotel options, attractions, and dining options. While the book's nowhere near as hefty as its more famous cousin The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World (which I'm convinced could kill small animals if dropped carelessly), it's got a lot of useful information, all presented in that famous unbiased and slightly snarky Unofficial Guide style. The book even has a brief but concise writeup on the history of Disneyland Paris and French attitudes toward the park, which is one of the better articles I've seen on the subject.

I'm a big fan of the Unofficial Guides (as can be ascertained by the fact that I have quite a large collection of them!), and I'm glad to say that Bob Sehlinger and his team did a very good job with this book. The book provides a lot of good information and helpful tips for enjoying your Disneyland Paris vacation, including a few touring plans for the park. The book provides some good information about hotel and dining options in the villages surrounding the Disneyland Paris Resort, which I think is a nice touch (it's always good when guidebooks to Disney parks recognize that there are plenty of good options outside of Disney property). The book is a fun and easy read, and should feel familiar to the folks who have read the Unofficial Guides to the U.S. parks (maybe a little too familiar, but more on that in a moment).

The Unofficial Guide to Disneyland Paris does have a couple of problems. The biggest one is that the book hasn't been updated or reprinted since 2001, which means that you may want to verify any information in the book, especially as far as lodging and dining options, before you use it to plan your vacation. (I've heard that a new Unofficial Guide to Disneyland Paris may be in the works, and I certainly hope that's the case). While Bob provides a lot of unique information in this book, fans of the series will recognize passages that were cribbed from the U.S. park editions of the Unofficial Guide. That doesn't make the advice in these passages invalid - certainly the Disneyland and Walt Disney World editions share a fair amount of information - but it's an unwelcome distraction.

Unlike the Unofficial Guides to the U.S. parks, the Unofficial Guide to Disneyland Paris is relatively light on park maps - even for touring plans. That's disappointing, because the maps in the Unofficial Guides are among the better maps of the Disney parks that I've seen. My last quibble with the book is about something it has that the other books in the series don't have anymore - a brief guide to the attractions that are unique to the park. This is a really cool thing to include, and it'd be great to have something like this available again in all the Unofficial Guides, if only just to have something to show non-Disney fans that if you've seen one park, you have not in fact seen them all (Jay Rasulo's attempts to attempt to homogenize them notwithstanding).

The Unofficial Guide to Disneyland Paris is an informative, helpful, and opinionated guide to the Magic Kingdom in France. While it does take some information from guides in the series to the U.S. parks and is in desperate need of a new edition, it can still provide a Disney fan heading for Europe some good advice and suggestions for making the trip a little less expensive and stressful and a lot more fun. The book can be very tricky to find nowadays - it'll occasionally pop up in used bookstores or some of the online sites specializing in older and out-of-print books.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Not the Britannica for Disneyland, But A Nice Reference

The Disneyland Encyclopedia: The Unofficial, Unauthorized, and Unprecedented History of Every Land, Attraction, Restaurant, Shop, and Event in the Original Magic Kingdom, by Chris Strodder. Santa Monica, CA; Santa Monica Press, 2008, 467 pp.

One of the questions I get about this blog (besides "Why don't you post more often?") is "Do you actually read all the books you review?" I do indeed, cover to cover, even if I've read them before - which can sometimes be a neat trick with all the demands for my time. I can now say, however, that I actually found time to read an encyclopedia! But is it worth your time to read and refer to it? Well, hopefully you'll have your answer after this review.

The Disneyland Encyclopedia
attempts to provide all the information that a Disneyland fan might need to settle an argument or refresh his or her memory. The book provides entries for the lands, major and minor attractions, shops, restaurants, events, key people involved, and important elements of Walt Disney's original theme park, and covers everything from the Park's groundbreaking to recent times. Obviously, the book doesn't cover everything about Disneyland - a book that did so thoroughly would be a lot larger than almost 500 pages - but it attempts to cover as much as possible given the constraints of a reasonably priced one-volume set. The book gives readers several ways to access information - by alphabetical listing, by index, by citations of other entries, and (most interestingly) by a set of maps of the Park with each location noted with a letter and number code. The book also contains numerous lists about things found (or previously found) in the Park, a decent bibliography, and listing of relevant websites where readers can find additional information.

This book was a labor of love for its author, Chris Strodder, and it shows. Chris writes the book's entries in an entertaining and very accessible style; for the most part, he avoids being overwhelmingly positive or overwhelmingly cynical when writing about various elements of Disneyland, but he also manages to avoid being overly dry and refrains from being so obsessed with the minutiae of the Park that he runs the risk of boring or alienating his readers. The book is nicely illustrated with photographs from Disneyland (all in black and white, unfortunately); I particularly liked his use of photographs of windows on Main Street to illustrate his entries about Disney Legends involved in the creation of the Park and its attractions.

While overall I enjoyed The Disneyland Encyclopedia, I do have a few quibbles with the book. As you might expect with any project of this depth and breadth, there are a few errors - most of them about places and things outside of Disneyland, but I noticed that there seemed to be more mistakes about the Park near the end of the book than at the beginning (Chris was starting to run out of steam, perhaps?). Chris did a pretty good job with his research, considering he didn't use a lot of primary sources (it seems like his most of his primary source materials were old soft-cover souvenir guidebooks), but I wish that he'd taken the extra time to resolve some questions that his reference materials either didn't have answers for or had contradictory answers for. And, of course, The Disneyland Encyclopedia isn't a complete encyclopedia, by any means; there are a lot of things about the Park that aren't covered in the book or that I found myself wishing had been covered more thoroughly. That said, the book should provide the answers for most general queries fans have about the Park - and should even provide some new information for the Disneyland fan who thinks he or she knows everything.

The Disneyland Encyclopedia
is an interesting and fact filled reference book about Disney's first Magic Kingdom. While it does contain a few errors and isn't an all-encompassing guide to the Park, it should be a handy reference for Disney theme park fans looking for quick answers to questions they may have while pursuing their interests. The book is sure to be a welcome addition to any Disney fan's bookshelf. The book is readily available through numerous sources online and in many brick and mortar bookstores that carry a selection of books about Disney.

Monday, May 4, 2009

A Book For Learning the Whys of WDW

The Unofficial Disney Companion: The Inside Story of Walt Disney World and the Man Behind the Mouse, by Eve Zibart. New York: Macmillan Travel, 1997; 213 pp.

If you've spent any time in your local bookstore's travel section, you know that there are a lot of books that give tips on how to enjoy the Disney theme parks. A little less often, you'll run into a book that tries to do something different - that is, a book that attempts to explain the "whys" of Disney instead of the "hows". Instead of providing advice on how to see the most things in the least amount of time and for the least amount of money, these books tackle subjects like how Walt Disney influenced the design and operation of the Disney theme parks, or what the thousands of Disney cast members do backstage magic that creates the magic onstage. These books can be absolutely fascinating, but they can also be frustrating and difficult to understand - calling a couple of them "dense" would be a major understatement. Today, we're going to discuss a book that tries to tell the inside story of Walt Disney World in a way that the average park visitor can appreciate.

As you may have guessed from its title, The Unofficial Disney Companion was intended as a companion piece to The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World. The book covers a lot of interesting aspects of the Walt Disney World story that tend to be given short shrift or get compeltely left out of the guidebooks, like why Walt wanted such a large parcel of land to build his Florida theme park, the challenges faced in making Walt's dream a reality, the times and trends that influenced Walt when he and the Imagineers created Disneyland and the Magic Kingdom, and how Michael Eisner influenced the expansion of the resort and the types of new attractions added to the parks during his tenure. Readers get a peek at what happens behind the facades and under the feet of the guests, get an idea of how sometimes Disney's view of American history may be a distorted one, and the challenges of dealing with animals and nature while trying to run one of the busiest tourist destinations in the world.

Eve Zibart does a really good job in this book of making topics that are normally the realm or academics and philosophers accessible to the layperson. Although by necessity Eve has to boil down some pretty complicated concepts into simpler ideas, she does so without making the reader feel like he or she's not getting the whole story. While Eve's obviously a fan of Disney in general and Walt Disney Worldin particular, she doesn't pull any punches when it comes to discussing what Disney does well and where Disney comes up short. This book's a fascinating look at some issues and ideas that the average visitor to the World might not generally consider, yet have a tremendous impact on what they experience.

That isn't to say that The Unofficial Disney Companion doesn't have its share of problems. Considering the amount of research that had to have gone into writing this book, Eve still manages to present some information that anyone who's done a little in-depth research on Walt Disney World knows is absolutely false (Cinderella Castle's tallest spire doesn't screw off in case of hurricanes, and the meteor projection in Space Mountain isn't a chocolate-chip cookie, just to cite two examples). Another really unfortunate oversight in this book is the lack of a bibliography, which means that readers can't go look for other books and articles that provide more information on topics that Eve covers in her book. Finally, a good portion of the information in Eve's book is now out of date; there have been a lot of changes at Disney since this book was first published more than 10 years ago (such as the addition of Disney's Animal Kingdom and the closing of the Disney Institute and Pleasure Island), and a new edition of the book hasn't been printed for several years.

It goes without saying that if you're one of those people that absolutely don't "want the magic spoiled" foe you about the Disney theme parks, The Unofficial Disney Companion isn't the book for you; if you're already a devoted fan of the Disney theme parks and are searching for more information about what goes on behind the scenes at WDW and why, you're probably not going to find anything in this boook that you haven't read somewhere else. But if you're one of those people that want to take their knowledge of Disney beyond what you've been told on an official Disney tour, this book might be a good start for your journey of discovery.

The Unofficial Disney Companion provides a fascinating look at what went into creating Walt Disney World as we know it today, including its history, the historical and cultural influences of its creator and his antecedents, and the challenges the Company and its cast members face in creating Disney theme park magic. The book's credibility is slightly hurt by including some old stories that have been proven to be false, but for the most part it's a good introduction to some aspects of the resort that many guests may have never considered.

The Unofficial Disney Companion has been out of print for several years, but it often turns up in used bookstores and on eBay. There's also a second edition of the book available; renamed Inside Disney, the second edition was published by Wiley in 2002. Aside from a few updates, both editions of the book are nearly identical.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Disneyland Gets A Zagat Rating (Or Several)

Zagat Disneyland Insider's Guide (John Deiner, Staff Editor). New York: Zagat Survey LLC, 2009; 108 pp.

If there's one thing you never have to worry about when you write a blog about books related to the Disney theme parks, it's a lack of material - especially not a lack of guidebooks to the parks. Disneyland and Walt Disney World are such popular travel destinations that it seems like every publisher wants to print a guidebook to them, and more publishers add to the selection regularly. This time, we'll be looking at a new guidebook to Disneyland from a well-established publisher of restaurant reviews and see how useful their reviews of an entire theme park might be to the average visitor.

If you're into fine dining and have had the need to explore your meal options in an unfamiliar city, you're familiar with the Zagat Guides. For the past 30 years, they've been providing ratings for restaurants based on extensive reader reviews; many restaurants take great pride in displaying stickers that they they've received a Zagat rating. A couple of years ago, Zagat decided to branch out and apply their review system to the Walt Disney World Resort, and in the new Zagat Disneyland Insider's Guide, they do the same to the Happiest Place on Earth.

The Zagat Disneyland Insider's Guide looks at the entire Disneyland Resort - both theme parks, Downtown Disney, and the Disneyland Resort Hotels, providing reviews and ratings of attractions, entertainment, shopping, and of course food - not just sit-down restaurants, mind you, but also fast food options and even fruit carts. Locations are rated on a 30-point scale, with every item having at least three separate ratings. For example, attractions and shows are rated by appeal to adults, appeal to children, and thrill level; restaurants are rated by food, decor, and service, with a separate box provided displaying average cost. In addition to the ratings, comments from Zagat reader surveys are provided for each location. The book also provides lists of top-rated locations for each district of the Resort, brief overviews of each area, and a separate color section with Disney-provided park maps and photographs of top-rated attractions, shopping, dining, and hotels.

The best thing about the Zagat Disneyland Insider's Guide is that the book makes finding information quick and easy; the book's well-organized and the information in it is concise. The book is also small enough that it's easy to carry along - its overall dimensions are probably the same as a small stack of park maps, so it'd be easy to carry along in a pocket or purse. I also like that it's easy to get an idea how much eating at a restaurant's going to set you back with aquick glance, and the lists at the back of the book breaking down attractions, shopping and dining into various categories are a nice touch.

So the Zagat Disneyland Insider's Guide is the perfect thing to take along with you on your next trip to the Park, right? Well, not quite. The biggest problem I have with the book is the format used in writing the reviews; rather than just having their staff writers come up with their own brief summary of the opinions provided by those surveyed, the Zagat folks decided to put together those review paragraphs by splicing together words from multiple individual comments. For example, here's part of the Disneyland Insider's Guide review of Dumbo the Flying Elephant:

" 'Every kid' 'has to ride' this 'quintessential' Fantasyland fixture 'at least once', as there's 'nothing like getting an elephant's-eye view' while 'soaring through the air' in 'colorful' circling pachyderms..."

Writing the reviews in this style probably sounded like a cute idea, but it gets annoying really quickly - especially if you decide to read the book all the way through (which granted isn't how this book's intended to be read). If you're looking for tips on when to visit and how to save time, there's a little bit of information in the Zagat Insider's Guide, but we're talking about one or two very short paragraphs. If you'd like some suggestions for touring the parks, the information you're provided is similarly limited; this isn't the book you want to buy if you're looking for a lot of in-depth information for planning your next visit to Anaheim. It's also not the book you're looking for if you'd like some information about hotels or shopping outside of the Disneyland Resort itself - the book deals only with what's on Disney property. Last but not least, a price tag of $14.95 for a book that's only about 125 pages in total length (108 pages of text plus the color section) may give some folks looking for the best value for their money some pause.

The Zagat Disneyland Insider's Guide is a well-organized and concise book that provides brief but useful reviews and ratings of attractions, shopping, and dining at the Disneyland Resort, and would probably serve as a useful quick reference to guests who are new visitors to the Happiest Place on Earth. However, its usefulness is hampered by an awkward writing style for the reviews, and some readers will find that the information provided by the book is a little too concise, keeping the book from being a useful planning tool. The book is readily available at most major book retailers and at the Disneyland Resort.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Tangent Review: The Scoop on the Anti-Disneyland

Carnival Undercover, By Brett Witter. New York: Plume (Penguin Putnam Group), 2003, 207 pp.

Before there was a Disneyland, there were carnivals and fair midways. Actually, you can argue that carnivals served as one of the inspirations for Disneyland - although not in a good way; Walt Disney has been quoted as saying that he intended his creation to be like nothing else in the world, especially not like the carnivals and fairs people were familiar with. But if what carnivals were and what they weren't helped define the Happiest Place on Earth, the success of Disneyland and other amusement and theme parks helped define carnivals, as well. For this review, I'm going to take a look at a book that explains the differences between carnivals and amusement parks and gives readers a peek behind the scenes of what's happening on the midway.

Carnival Undercover is part-expose and part love poem to the carnival and to the fairground midway. Brett Witter lets us in on how and why things happen the way the do at carnivals, how they differ from amusement parks and theme parks, how some of the amazing and annoying things you encounter at carnivals are done, how you can create a little of the carnival in your own home, and gain a (slight) advantage at the game booths. We learn things like what makes a carnival location and what makes for the best location in a carnival, what tell-tale signs of a poorly maintained carnival ride to look for, what midway games offer the best chance of winning and the least chance of winning, how freak show performers pull off their death-defying stunts, and what the life of a carny is like.

Interesting, I hear you say, but what does any of this have to do with Disney theme parks? Brett refers to the Disney theme parks several times throughout the book - mainly to point out how the theme park experience differs from the carnival experience, and not necessarily for the better. This includes comparisons of the multiple-entry, grid like nature of the carnival layout versus the "hub and spoke" layout of the Disney Magic Kingdoms, a review of how ride safety requirements differ between carnivals and theme parks, and even a critique of Disneyland's late, unlamented Rocket Rods.

Carnival Undercover is a really fun read. While Brett certainly doesn't view carnivals and carnies through rose-colored glasses, he has a strong sense of admiration and respect for the folks who make their living be working on the midway, and it shows in his book. Along the way, Brett makes a real effort to increase the reader's appreciation of carnivals and the carnival lifestyle as well, and provides some interesting tips and tricks that could be helpful to folks who like going to carnivals and fairs, including how to better your chances of winning and avoid gaffs (rigged games) on the midway. The book is a fascinating look at a topic that has seldom been given serious study.

So what problems do I have with Brett's book? At times, the book seems unfocused - veering away from its primary topic into discussions of amusement park attractions and attendance, among other things. My only other complaint about the book is that a lot of its facts are out of date, making you wonder about the accuracy of the rest of the book, but then this book has never been updated since its brief initial run, so to some extent you have to expect that sort of thing.

Carnival Undercover is an enjoyable and fascinating look at carnivals and fairs, providing information about how and why things happen the way the do on the midway, as well as tips and tricks to help the reader enjoy and appreciate their time at a fair or carnival a bit more. It's not intended as a serious or scholarly piece, and some readers may not appreciate the tongue-in-cheek attitude of the book, but it's a great way to learn about carnivals, amusement parks, and theme parks. If your interest in the amusement industry extends beyond the Disney theme parks, you may want to consider picking up a copy of this book.

Unfortunately, the book went out of print soon after its initial print run, but it's not difficult to find used copies through brick-and-mortar bookstores specializing in used or bargain books, or online booksellers like Amazon.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

A Nice Effort, But It Doesn't Deliver

Secrets of the Mouse: An Unofficial Behind-The-Scenes Guide to Disneyland Park, By Alan Joyce., 2008; 192 pp.

Going into a bookstore and saying you'd like a guidebook to a Disney theme park is kinda like walking into a Starbucks and saying that you'd like some coffee. No matter what bookshop you visit, you're going to be confronted with a lot of choices - there are are a lot of books to choose from, each with their own take on the parks, and every day new titles appear hoping to provide readers with a new and fresh perspective on the Disney park experience. And it's not just the big publishing houses vying for the Disney fan's or the park visitor's attention - thanks to the emergence of several self-publishing websites, a lot of first-time authors are bringing out out books on the parks in the hope of becoming the next Arthur Frommer or Steve Birnbaum. In today's post, I'm going to review a recently released self-published work on that promises to give readers a glimpse behind the curtain at many of Disneyland's most popular attractions.

Secrets of the Mouse provides concise information on the lands and attractions of the Happiest Place on Earth, including attraction history, information on attraction elements such as ride vehicles and theming, and details often overlooked by infrequent or casual guests. Besides information on attractions, the book also gives readers hints on where to find some hidden Mickeys in the attractions and attraction queues, and it provides some games to pass some time while waiting to board an attraction. The book is intended to be a guide for enhancing a guest's Disneyland experience; it's not so much intended to provide readers with information on what to visit and when as much as it's supposed to provide a ready reference to help a visitor get more out of their visit. For a self-published unofficial guide to the Park, Secrets of the Mouse is pretty well illustrated (although more than a few photos are on the fuzzy side), and it's a quick read; each entry on a particular attraction is about one to two pages long, so a reader can quickly go to the entry for an attraction and read up on it a quickly as he or she queues up to ride.

If you're an author and you're going to name your book Secrets of the Mouse, you'd better be ready to deliver some fascinating and surprising information, and... well, for the most part, this book doesn't. Don't get me wrong - it's not a bad book, and I did learn a couple of things I didn't know about Disneyland by reading it, but the book really doesn't deliver on the promise of its title if you're a die-hard Disneyland fan. You're getting some of the Mouse's secrets, all right, but they're probably ones you're already familiar with if you've done some reading about Disneyland or if you've been on one of Disney's official tours. The book also suffers from being a jack of all trades but a master of none; it's got some good information on attractions, some fun hidden Mickey hunts, and some fun games to play, but not enough of any of them to make this book really stand out form amongst the books available. Secrets of the Mouse would make a good gift for someone who's just starting to discover the little things that make a Disney theme park so special, but if you're past that initial stage of discovery, there are better choices out there.

Secrets of the Mouse provides a nice introduction to some of the history and hidden details found in Disneyland's attractions and to hidden Mickey spotting, as well as providing some fun games to pass the time while waiting in an attraction queue, and would make a nice supplement to a guidebook for someone unfamiliar with the California theme park. However, the book covers topics that have been covered before and covered in better detail in books that have been previously published, and someone who's already at least somewhat familiar with the little touches that make Disneyland a special place would be better served looking elsewhere (I'd suggest The Imagineering Field Guide to Disneyland and Disneyland Detective if you're looking for information on attraction details, and Disneyland's Hidden Mickeys if you're interested in hidden Mickey hunting). The book tries to be many things for many people, but in the end is only moderately successful at covering any of the topics included.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

How Do You Say "I've Got An Excuse" in Japanese?

Due to a series of very fortunate circumstances, I'm off to Tokyo (and of course, to the Tokyo Disney Resort). I was hoping to have at least one more review to tide everyone over until I get back, but I had so much going on this last week that it didn't happen - sorry, folks! I should have another review up by the first week of February - until then, sayonara and take care.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Getting An Education From The Mouse

Mousecatraz: The Walt Disney World College Program, by Wesley Jones. E.J. Communications/, 2006, 153 pp.

The next time you visit Disneyland or Walt Disney World, take a minute to look at the nametag of the cast member who's assisting you. Chances are that underneath his or her name on the tag, you'll see a college name listed instead of that cast member's home town; that means that he or she is part of the Disney College Program, an internship program where Disney brings in college students from all over the country to "live, learn, and earn" for a semester as they work for the Mouse. Few people are aware of the program and fewer still have had the chance to be a part of it, so even some devoted Disney fans may not be aware of what it's like to be a college student working at the Disney theme parks. The book we're eviewing this time gives us a peek behind the curtain at the Disney College Program and its participants.

Mousecatraz is the nickname given to the Disney College Program by some of the interns based on the conditions they've experienced while working in it, and it's also the name of a book that shares information and anecdotes about the Disney College Program experience. The book takes us through the various phases of the College Program, from the recruiting seminars held on college campuses to the final goodbyes, and many of the things - good, bad, or odd - that can happen in between. Former College Program cast members share their experiences and stories of the things they witnessed while they were part of the program; they talk about their jobs at the Disney parks (and some of the things they did and were done to them while working at them), their experiences living with a large group of people their own ages from all over and the joy and the terror that can result, the educational experiences they received, and the things they did to break free from the monotony and frustration that sometimes goes with working in a theme park. While the young adults that participate in the College Program may look like stereotypical clean-cut All-American kids, they're subject to the same quirks, desires, urges, and foibles of any college student anywhere, and the things that have happened to them while they worked for Disney makes for some interesting stories - not all of them for small ears.

Wesley Jones, a former Disney College Program intern, mainly lets his fellow participants in the program tell readers what being a College Program cast member is like; Wesley provides some general information about various facets of the program, general information about the Walt Disney World Resort, and sets up some of the anecdotes, helping to tie the whole narrative together. I think things work out better for the book in this format, since if Wesley had just told the stories he'd heard, some folks might not be inclined to believe what they had read! Although it's pretty obvious that Wesley enjoyed and appreciated his time in the College Program (particularly when you read Wesley's own story in the final chapter), he doesn't appear to pull any punches; the book is more than happy to point out the mistakes and dumb actions of cast members, guests, and Disney managers alike. Wesley isn't salacious when he shares some of the more adult stories about being in the College Program; overall, he maintains his role as a more-or-less neutral observer throughout the book and lets the readers come to their own conclusions about the College Program.

I didn't have any major problems with Mousecatraz, but I can imagine there's going to be some readers that will. As I've mentioned above, some of the content of the book is definitely not suitable for kids (it's not that any of the stories are particularly graphic, it's just that some parents may not want their children reading about some of this stuff). If you're one of those folks that don't want the magic spoiled for them by finding out what happens behind the scenes, this isn't the book for you - Wesley doesn't give away too many secrets that most Disney fans don't already know, but any illusions readers harbor about the perfection of cast members and the well-olied machine that keeps the theme parks running may definitely be called into question after reading this book. If you're looking for some really graphic or bawdy stories, you're probably not going to be to happy with Mousecatraz, in spite of what the book jacket might have you believe; you're also probably not going to be thrilled with this book if you feel that Disney can do no wrong, because the Company does come in for some criticism in a few places in the book. If you can handle a few adult situations and a sometimes less-than-magical view of the Disney parks, this book's worth a read.

Mousecatraz is an interesting and (so far, at least) unique look into the Disney College Program and the true-life adventures experienced by its participants. The book's not really appropriate for pre-teenage children because of some adult themes, but if you have a college-age or nearly college age child who's contemplating signing up for Disney's internship program (or who might do so sometime soon), this book will give them and their parents a little better idea of what to expect than they'll get from a presentation or a glossy brochure. Although the book's a couple of years old, it's still readily available through and